Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education . Cambridge, MA : MIT Press . xii + 196 pages. ISBN 9780262012911 , $32.00 cloth . John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg . 2009 .

The increasing numbers of nontenure track (NTT) faculty in U.S. universities can be seen as a long-overdue end-run around a tenure system that protects dead wood, as a threat to academic freedom, and as the consequence of deliberate exploitation of vulnerable faculty by cost-conscious administrators. Academic administrators John Cross and Edie Goldenberg dismiss these views in their contribution to a growing body of critical literature on the higher education industry. They do not see the growing presence of NTT faculty in prestigious academic institutions as a gradual, uncoordinated process unfolding at the departmental level in response to structural factors—a process all but invisible to central administration.

The authors' unstated question is: Why is it that university leaders who might wish to curb this growth find it so hard to do so? Unfortunately, this framing of the NTT issue often encourages them to stray from the subject at hand in order to expand on the changing institutional culture in academe, the role of university presidents, competition among universities for faculty stars, decentralization of decision making, and the influence of business models on university budget processes.

Cross and Goldenberg start from the premise that presidents and top-level university administrators hold relatively little power and that academic policy is largely the product of numerous autonomous actions taken by tenured and tenure-track faculty, largely at the departmental level, a premise shared by Hacker and Dreifus (2010). They identify seven drivers of NTT hiring: unexpected, albeit frequent, overshoot of admissions targets; restrictions on the number of tenure-track lines; reluctance to hire permanent faculty in new or marginal fields; limitations on teaching assistant availability; rising costs of hiring graduate teaching assistants, which the authors attribute to unionization; decentralized budgeting; and competition for faculty research stars.

While the authors regard the introduction of business models into university administration as important factors in NTT hiring, they attribute more responsibility for this phenomenon to the decentralization of budgetary authority to colleges and schools than to broader demands for faculty productivity. Like Hacker and Dreifus (2010), they attribute departmental decisions to employ adjuncts to the unwillingness of tenure-track faculty to bear heavy teaching loads, but pay little attention to the impacts of university-level decisions to restrict tenure-track hiring in fields like Mathematics, Chemistry, English, and Romance Studies despite their disproportionately large service-teaching burdens. Would modest increases in the teaching loads of tenured and tenure-track faculty help these departments meet university-wide demand for their courses without serious reductions in contact hours? On balance, NTT hiring in these departments would appear to reflect administrative priorities more than tenure-track faculty preferences.

Off-Track Profs offers broad guidelines to administrators seeking to understand the NTT phenomenon. It is not a scholarly investigation of the impact of NTT faculty on the academic environment or the conditions under which they work. The book opens with a very useful catalog of the range and variety of NTT positions on the ten campuses that Cross and Goldenberg visited (UC Berkeley, Cornell University, Duke University, University of Illinois,1 Michigan, MIT, Northwestern, Virginia, Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis).

The paucity of disaggregated quantitative data on either the numbers of NTT faculty employed at these institutions or the terms of their employment present the authors with a methodological dilemma. When they ask who teaches undergraduates, they find “one of the major surprises of our study is that nobody seems to know” (p. 3). To compensate for this lack, they could have conducted extensive, if costly, survey research or engaged in a serious ethnographic investigation of the worlds inhabited by NTT faculty. Instead, they supplement quantitative data provided by the institutions studied with what they term “extensive discussions” with university presidents and provosts, deans of schools and colleges, department chairs, and faculty. The authors do not tell us how many administrators and faculty were interviewed at each institution or the relative numbers of administrators and faculty, nor do they make clear what kinds of evidence they use to draw their conclusions.

These methodological weaknesses weaken the authors' arguments and invite nit picking. For example, they argue that “the itinerant lecturer who teaches individual courses on multiple campuses for paltry wages and no benefits . . . is virtually unknown on elite research campuses” (p. 3). One can only know this by reviewing the biographies of a substantial sample of NTT faculty. There is no evidence that the authors have done so. Cross and Goldenberg make the important point that women are overrepresented in NTT positions, and are less likely than their male counterparts to make the transition from a non-tenured to a full-time, tenure-track position. But, the lack of interview data may lead them to underestimate the importance of dual-career and other family issues in the acceptance—often grudging—of second-tier status. Similarly, while they note the important role of geography in determining NTT faculty salaries, had they interviewed NTT faculty living in small college towns, they would have learned how dependent spouses are on the town's principal employer. These are just a sample of the complaints that the authors invite by making sweeping statements absent data to support them.

In sum, the tone of the book is measured. Cross and Goldenberg's arguments seem reasonable and might be convincing if they were supported by a significant body of evidence. Perhaps due to the lack of data, the authors say little about the working conditions of NTT faculty, but focus instead than on why administrators have been able either to grasp or to manage what they see as a phenomenon that could adversely affect the academic environment at major research universities.

  • 1

    The authors do not specify which University of Illinois campuses they included in the sample.


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  2. Reference
  • Hacker, A., & Dreifus, C. (2010). Higher education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids—And what we can do about it. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt.